Gandhi and his religion: 147 years on, Mahatma continues to be an enigma

On 2 October, 1947, when a group of people went to wish Mahatma Gandhi a long life on his seventy-eighth birthday (he wanted to live 125 years), he was expecting condolence instead.

Gandhi had lost the desire to live. The nation was in the grip of violent frenzy and hatred. He desired "the aid of all-embracing power to take me away from the vale of tears".  He genuinely felt that his words did not carry weight and "it would be best that the god took him away". Only four months later, precisely on 30 January, 1948, Nathuram Godse killed Gandhi.

Gandhi continues to be an enigma in his life and more so after his death. He is the subject of study for all disciplines of academics – ranging from scientists, social sciences, psychoanalysts to atheists. The unravelling of his personality and life still continues through academic research and often with fictional accounts by psychoanalysts like Sudhir Kakar and Asis Nandy. Each study is so revealing that it paves the way for further research on Gandhi’s personae.

icking various strands of Gandhi's life, Jordens in his scholarly book describes Gandhi’s religion as 'large bulky homespun woollen shawl. Getty Images

Picking various strands of Gandhi's life, Jordens in his scholarly book describes Gandhi’s religion as 'large bulky homespun woollen shawl. Getty Images

In one such extraordinary research on Gandhi’s life by an Australian scholar JTF Jordens in his book – Gandhi’s Religion. A Homespun Shawl – Gandhi’s most controversial experiment of sleeping with young women was explored with a perspective that educates people of the Mahatma’s spiritual pursuit not for personal benefit but for the humanity.

In fact, Gandhi’s concept of chastity was not related to avoidance of women. In his two experiments with Brahmacharya (celibacy) beginning from 1945, Gandhi strived to attain the idea of the state of mind where awareness of sex between genders got eliminated. In essence, he tried to reach the stage of 'ardhanarishvara' where distinctness of women and men gets blurred.

This is the precise reason why Manu, Mahatma’s grand niece who in 1946 accompanied Gandhi to Noakholi, wrote a book on Gandhi titled Bapu, My Mother. Manu shared Gandhi’s bed till he was killed as she always found the Mahatma as her mother. Gandhi found the ideals of truthfulness, non-violence, chastity, and equanimity (sthitaprajna) as approximate attributes of divinity. He found fault with his own inadequacies to trace the genesis of partition and the subsequent Hindu-Muslim violence that killed millions. He blamed his own shortcomings in his failure to convince Jinnah to give up the demand for Pakistan on basis of religion.

Though he called himself as practising 'sanatani Hindu', his abiding faith in the message and love of other religions was steadfast and never got attenuated in face of communal violence. Far from it, Gandhi preached that the faithful of all religions to be true to their faiths, spread love, peace and truthfulness. Gandhi was averse to the divine guidance which does not pass the critical test of reason. For him, the religion was the means to serve humanity, an embodiment of God.

His rejection of orthodox Hinduism and love for other religions drove fundamentalists nuts and often fell into the category of apostasy.

What was Gandhi’s religion then? Picking various strands of his life, Jordens in his scholarly book describes Gandhi’s religion as 'large bulky homespun woollen shawl. At first, it looks very plain to the eye, but we can detect the beauty of the strong patterns and contrasting shades of folk art'. In what can be said as profound description of Gandhi’s personality, Jordens writes, "Gandhi combined in his frail body the ideals of total renunciation and of total dedication: the ideals of Shiva, lord of ascetics in the harsh Himalayas, and the ideals of Bodhisattva who postponed his own liberation in order to devote himself to removal of all sufferings in the world".

Gandhi’s life was his message for those who care to listen. He would have blamed himself for his own inadequacy to convince his detractors to follow the path which he believed leads to salvation and not the destruction of the mankind had he been alive today.